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The Earth strikes back

Published:Friday | April 23, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Peter Espeut

Peter Espeut, Contributor

The Earth can take so much and no more. Did we think that we could continue to cut down our natural forests without ultimately facing the consequences? At one time, little Jamaica was declared to have the highest rate of defores-tation in the world. Sure, we believed we had good reason to cut down the trees: we wanted more land for agriculture.

In the 17th century, we cut down our coastal forest to plant indigo; in the 18th century, the drive for profit demanded we convert more land to sugar cane production, and no one questioned the landowner's right to import slaves to do his cultivation. In the 19th century, the craze was Blue Mountain coffee, so we cut down the natural forests in the Blue Mountains in the process. And in the 20th century, planting Caribbean pine was a good idea to replace timber imports, so we cut down the natural forest to the bare earth to cultivate this foreign tree, this exotic species.

In this 21st century, the excuse will be mining: digging down the valuable wet limestone forests of the Cockpit Country to extract the last ton of bauxite; or blasting the last virgin (untouched) dry forests on the Bengal Cliffs (Puerto Bueno Mountain) to export limestone. What is ironic is that there is a global demand for high quality limestone for environmental protection in developed countries: to remove sulphur dioxide from the effluent smoke of industrial smokestacks. We must destroy Jamaica's valuable limestone forest ecosystems so that others can protect their environment!


Yesterday was the 40th annual marking of Earth Day, a day featuring public education highlighting human-induced threats to the world's natural environment. I hope wherever you were yesterday you picked up the connection between the long drought we have been experiencing and the decades of deforestation we have wreaked on little Jamaica. My column at the beginning of the century predicted that this would be the century of water worries. It's only just begun.

And, of course, when the rains come there will be floods and landslides and drownings because of soil erosion which is the inevitable result of deforestation. We who sow the wind will reap the whirlwind. Mother Nature will have the last word. The laws of science and nature were not enacted in any parliament.

According to government estimates, Jamaica's total fish landings at Independence in 1962 was 24.2 million pounds; by 1981, the fish catch had fallen by 35 per cent to 15.9 million pounds. This is the result of overfishing. In the name of catching fish for people to eat, you cannot continue to drag nets along the seafloor (destroying seagrass and corals), to use small mesh in nets and traps (trapping juveniles before they get old enough to breed) and to shoot the fecund breeding females with spearguns, and not expect a decline in fish catch. All the aforementioned destructive fishing methods are legal under Jamaica's laws. I have been writing about this for almost 20 years, under both People's National Party (PNP) and Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) governments, and the situation has continued. We must not be surprised if nature strikes back - harshly!

Ridiculously accused

We environmentalists have borne the brunt of a lot of abuse over the last few decades. We have been unfairly called anti-development, and have been ridiculously accused of wanting to take Jamaica back to the time of the Tainos. There is enough racism left in Jamaica for our movement to be branded as just a bunch of 'light-skinned people' interfering in 'black people business', remarks highly insulting to the thousands of black Jamaican environmentalists.

We have been calling for nothing more than for the Government to follow its own written policy documents, which commit Jamaica to follow a path of sustainable development. Neither the previous PNP government nor the present JLP one seems to know what sustainable development means, despite the huge literature on the subject on the Internet and elsewhere. I believe they think it means 'sustained development' over a long period. Could our government have signed these environmental treaties without knowing what the words meant?

We must put a stop to unsustainable development (short-term gains at the expense of long-term development potential) if we wish to spare future generations the wrath of Mother Nature's backlash. Development at the expense of the natural environment is counterfeit. The laws of science and nature cannot be amended or waived to accommodate local and foreign investors.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and natural resource manager. Feedback may be sent to